By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
It all began with Lynn Riggs's play, Green Grown the Lilacs, seen on Broadway during the 1930-31 season. As produced by The Theatre Guild, it proved a decent but not overwhelming success. During the early 1940s, when the Guild badly needed a hit, it occurred to Theresa Helburn, one of the organization's co-directors, that this play could make a splendid musical. She presented the idea to Richard Rodgers, who hoped to work on it with his longtime writing partner, Lorenz Hart. Depressed, plagued by alcohol problems, and physically exhausted, Hart had neither the energy nor the desire to involve himself in the project. Rodgers brought it to a fellow Columbia University alumnus, Oscar Hammerstein II, whose many Broadway credits included the lyrics of Rose Marie and Show Boat – and thus a great collaboration was born.
R&H termed Oklahoma! "a musical play," not "a musical comedy," and it brilliantly integrated song with story (even Show Boat, the greatest American musical prior to R&H, didn't accomplish this so skillfully). Every song reveals character and helps the plot to progress. The duets for each pair of lovers, as well as their solos, absolutely define them as human beings: "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" is the open, warm-hearted essence of Curly; Laurey's no-nonsense attitude in "Many a New Day" yields to her romantic side in "Out of My Dreams" (one of Rodgers's loveliest waltzes); "I Cain't Say No," with its sheepish introduction and jaunty verses, lets us immediately know Annie; and Will's exuberance and enthusiasm make a joyful impression in "Kansas City." The men sing with Will, the women with Laurey, and all join at the Box Social for "The Farmer and the Cowman," which culminates with an exhilarating dance sequence. Even more memorable is the innovative Dream Ballet, in which the dreaming Laurey imagines Jud carrying her off after winning a fight between himself and Curly. The dances confirmed the reputation of a gifted American choreographer, Agnes De Mille, who two years later did similarly glorious work on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.
A filmed Oklahoma! (1955), featuring Gordon McRae and introducing Shirley Jones – was successful, as were two Broadway revivals during the past quarter century (the second was in fact a recreation of a production first seen at London's Royal National Theatre). After more than six decades, the show remains enormously popular. No doubt it can still be seen in professional and amateur productions all over America 365 days a year!
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